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2023 NFL Free Agency Primer: Running Back (Fantasy Football)

2023 NFL Free Agency Primer: Running Back (Fantasy Football)

Nothing kicks off the start of a brand-new football season better than NFL free agency, which is sure to involve plenty of player movement. Teams can place their franchise/transition tags on players as early as February 21, 2023, setting the stage for a wild offseason sooner than you think. The NFL never ceases to provide entertainment for all 365 days of the calendar year, and 2023 is shaping up to be no different. Free agency officially kicks off on March 15th. But deals will likely already be in place with the legal tampering period starting March 13th at noon.

So grab your popcorn, and get ready for the free agency frenzy with the 2023 free agency primer. I’ll break down the most notable impending free agents across the four major fantasy positions – with some potential trade/cut candidates to widen the scope – through the lens of fantasy football to prepare you for the ensuing March Madness. This primer should also help you make optimal trades in your dynasty leagues and unearth values in early best ball drafts before the chaos occurs.

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2023 NFL Running Back Free Agency Primer

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Saquon Barkley (RB – NYG)

Saquon Barkley was finally healthy in 2022 and reaped the rewards of playing in a much better offensive environment. The 2023 free agent finished as the RB5 overall and in points per game, as he was able to recapture his explosive upside as both a rusher and receiver. Barkley finished second in overall touches (352) and backfield opportunity share (80%) behind only Josh Jacobs through 17 weeks. He also scored 10 rushing TDs with 23 carries inside the 10-yard line. In 2021, Barkley totaled just 13 red-zone touches all season. Let Barkley’s return to glory show that you want to target young impending FA RBs in improved offensive situations that project to earn high volume with proven records of production.

As of this writing, ESPN’s Jordan Raanan reports that there’s a growing belief the Giants and Barkley may settle on a deal that pays an average of $14 million annually. The number makes sense considering the contract that Aaron Jones earned from the Green Bay Packers will pay him $11 million in 2023. If the two sides are unable to strike a long-term deal, look for the Giants to be active in the RB market in either the draft and/or free agency with Matt Breida also hitting free agency. Recall that the team visited with multiple RB draft prospects before settling on Gary Brightwell in Round 6 in 2022. The current regime has past ties to other veteran FA running backs like Damien Harris and Devin Singletary.

Josh Jacobs (RB – LV)

Josh Jacobs was arguably the most valuable fantasy asset during the fantasy football regular season based on his finish as the RB2 overall in relation to his super cheap draft-day ADP. The market was convinced that Jacobs would become part of a dreaded RB-by-committee under new head coach Josh McDaniels, but that was hardly the case. He was a full-blown bell cow for the Raiders leading the NFL in touches through 17 weeks. The 24-year-old is slated to hit free agency, so it will be interesting to see if he returns to the Raiders or signs a big deal elsewhere after leading the NFL with 1,653 rushing yards. Jacobs claims he wants to stay in Las Vegas, but it remains to be seen how much Raiders GM Dave Ziegler will shell out for a running back after spending a large chunk of his executive career in New England. Jacobs is currently the RB9 in early best-ball ADP.

Tony Pollard (RB – DAL)

Based on Dallas’ recent signings with players coming off major injuries, I’d bet that Tony Pollard returns to play for the Cowboys either on a long-term deal or on the franchise tag (a most likely outcome). Ezekiel Elliott is a potential salary cap casualty and showed a major lack of juice as a rusher in 2022, averaging a career-low 3.7 yards per carry. Meanwhile, Pollard finished the season as the fantasy RB7 – despite ranking outside the top 25 in touches per game – as PFF’s 3rd-highest graded running back. The former No. 2 running back scored more fantasy points than any other running back (19.3 per game) from Weeks 7-16 when he was consistently playing 53% or more of the snaps as the team’s featured back. Even if the team brings back Elliott on a team-friendly deal, I’d imagine Pollard’s second-half usage carries over into 2023. Pollard is being drafted as the RB13 in early Underdog best-ball drafts.

Miles Sanders (RB – PHI)

The Eagles starting running back enjoyed an extremely strong season finishing as the RB10 in half-point scoring overall and RB13 in points per game Weeks 1-17. Miles Sanders dominated the backfield touches over other Philly running backs with a 68% opportunity share (16.8 touches per game) and took advantage of playing in a great offense (with favorable game scripts) behind an elite offensive line. He ended the year averaging just south of five yards per carry and scored 13 rushing TDs after scoring zero in 2021. His carries inside the 10-yard line ranked inside the top five among all RBs. Sanders was a draft-day steal in 2022 as an impending 2023 free agent attached to a high-upside offense.

However, with a higher price tag in 2023 drafts, Sanders comes with more question marks. His receiving usage was non-existent in Philly this past year – career-lows in receptions (21) and targets (27) – and he yielded more work to Kenneth Gainwell during the team’s playoff run into the Super Bowl. If he returns to the Eagles in 2023, Sanders’ TD numbers will be tough to replicate with Jalen Hurts‘ strong presence as the team’s primary goal-line runner. And if he leaves in free agency, there will be concerns about how efficient he will be as a rusher in a likely worse situation and if he will see any type of role as a receiver. Fantasy drafters are definitely aware of these concerns, with Sanders’ best-ball ADP sitting at RB25.

Joe Mixon (RB – CIN)

It truly was a tale of two seasons for Joe Mixon. In Weeks 1-8, Mixon struggled immensely averaging 3.3 yards per carry as the RB19 in points per game. No running back scored fewer fantasy points than expected because he couldn’t seem to find the end zone. But as the newer pieces of the offensive line started to gel, Mixon’s production took off in the form of positive touchdown regression. He finished the season (including the postseason) as PFF’s second-highest-graded running back headlined by an elite five-touchdown game versus the Panthers in Week 9. In his eight healthy games from Weeks 9 to the conference championship, he averaged 16.7 fantasy points per game (equivalent to RB5 on the season). All in all, Mixon finished sixth in touches per game (19.5) and second in carries inside the 10-yard line (28) from Weeks 1-17, but only scored five touchdowns. The career-high receiving usage (60 catches for 441 yards on 70 targets) paved the way for Mixon’s RB8 finish in points per game.

However, it should be noted that the team did involve Samaje Perine more down the stretch after he filled in admirably during Mixon’s injury (Weeks 11-13). Perine out-snapped Mixon in two of the Bengals’ three playoff games and routinely ran more routes. But Mixon still averaged nearly four catches per game. I wouldn’t envision his receiving role on early downs changing even if he loses snaps to another RB on third downs. Perine is also a free agent in 2023, but will likely be retained for a cheap cost. Mixon on the other hand has been rumored to be a potential salary cap cut candidate based on his massive cap hits over the next two seasons – hence the inclusion on this list. No guarantee that Mixon will return to Cincy under his current contract in 2023. A potential scenario is that 2023 is Mixon’s last year with the team, as he can be easily cut based on a club option in his contract in 2024.

Kareem Hunt (RB – CLE)

There should have been a stronger case made that the Browns’ offense would struggle in 2022, making Kareem Hunt a tough bet to also deliver as the 1B to Nick Chubb‘s 1A. Hunt’s bizarre lack of usage is what really held him back, but highly drafting No. 2 RBs in offenses with major question marks or turnovers is a tough sell. Hunt played over 50% of the snaps once all year (Week 1) and averaged just 9.4 touches per game, which ranked outside the top 50 running backs in 2022. In 2021, Hunt averaged nearly three more touches per game. The 2023 free-agent rusher was also not particularly efficient with a career-low 3.8 yards per carry. His days in Cleveland are most certainly over which opens the door for him to return to fantasy RB1 status as a new team’s bell cow. He is an absolute steal as the RB38 in early best-ball drafts.

Hunt is RB29 in my early 2023 best-ball rankings. If the Eagles let Sanders walk, I could easily see them bringing in Hunt as his 1-for-1 replacement. Howie Roseman has connections to John Dorsey who drafted Hunt and helped bring him to Cleveland after he was released from the Chiefs. They were also heavily linked to Hunt before this year’s past trade deadline. Andy Kwong from Revenge of the Birds also brings up that Arizona could be a potential landing spot for Hunt (or several other Browns impending FAs) based on the hire of former Browns QB coach Drew Petzing as the Cardinal’s new offensive coordinator.

Jamaal Williams (RB – DET)

How does a running back finish as the RB12 while catching only 12 passes? Touchdowns. That’s exactly how the season played out for Detroit Lions running back Jamaal Williams. He took on the role as the Lions’ goal-line back, carrying the ball a league-high 41 times inside the 10-yard line for 13 rushing TDs. Williams would finish the year with a league-high 17 rushing TDs; not too far off his 16.4 expected touchdowns. So although TD regression pundits will shout to the heavens that Williams cannot duplicate his 2022 success, his usage as a Lion says otherwise. If he returns to the Lions as a 2023 free agent, he should reprise his goal-line role under the same offensive coaching staff (albeit former running backs coach Duce Staley is now in Carolina). A similar role will lead to more scoring which will no doubt fuel another season of solid fantasy production at a cheap price tag. His 262 carries (6th) and 16.1 touches per game (higher than D’Andre Swift‘s 10.3) suggest the team will be featuring plenty of Williams in 2023 should he return.

David Montgomery (RB – CHI)

Khalil Herbert was better than David Montgomery in nearly every single rushing metric in 2022. The second-year rusher averaged 5.7 yards per carry to Montgomery’s flat 4.0 yards per carry average. Herbert rushed for just 70 fewer yards on 72 fewer carries. Monty’s rushing EPA of -15.3 ranked 32nd while Herbert’s 1.17 rushing EPA ranked 12th. Had Herbert not gotten hurt in Week 10 versus the Detroit Lions, there was a non-zero chance he would have completely usurped Montgomery as the team’s lead back. After Montgomery returned from injury (Week 15), Herbert led the Bears backfield in rushing yards until his own injury.

With Monty slated for free agency in 2023, there’s a chance he leaves the Bears. However, Chicago has been vocal about trying to bring him back, which they can easily do with their large amount of salary cap space available. Even if the Bears resign Montgomery, Herbert will be breathing down his neck for playing time. In Montgomery’s 15 healthy games played last season, he averaged 10.9 fantasy points per game as the RB26. But in 11 games, he played alongside a healthy Herbert, Montgomery saw an even bigger decline in production averaging 9.2 fantasy points (RB35), 13 carries, and 48 rushing yards per game.

Devin Singletary (RB – BUF)

Devin Singletary operated as the 1A in the Buffalo Bills backfield for the majority of the 2022 season finishing the year as RB23 overall and RB27 in points per game. However, unlike the last two seasons that ended with strong finishes for the undersized rusher, Singletary was in a full-blown committee with rookie James Cook to close out the year. The first-year rusher averaged a 40% snap share over the team’s final seven games, matching Singletary point-for-point (RB25 in points per game, 52% snap share). Cook was also the superior rusher in the season’s totality capping off his year by averaging 5.3 yards per carry (5th). The Georgia product earned PFF’s No. 1 ranking in breakaway run rate (44%). Singletary totaled just nine more carries than Cook from Weeks 13-Week 20 but ended the year 10th in PFF rushing grade. Overall, Singletary may have done just enough to grab the attention of other potential running back suitors this offseason with him slated to hit free agency.

Damien Harris (RB – NE)

Damien Harris was plagued by injuries in 2022, playing in just 11 contests – two of which he left early. In his nine healthy games, the Patriots running back averaged just 8.8 fantasy points, 11 carries, and 49 rushing yards per game. He took a major backseat to the surging Rhamondre Stevenson who operated as the RB1 in the backfield for the majority of the season. As an impending 2023 free agent, Harris’ best fantasy prospects are to land with a team in need of a red-zone back. He scored just as many times as Stevenson from inside the ten-yard line last season (thrice) despite being out-carried in that area of the field 19 to six. Wouldn’t be shocked to see Harris land with several teams like the Raiders, Giants, and Dolphins with different coaching/player connections present.

Rashaad Penny (RB – SEA)

Death, taxes, and Rashaad Penny on injured reserve. A tale as old as time. But at least give Rashaad Penny credit for holding the starting job away from second-round pick Kenneth Walker to start the season. But we knew it would likely not last given Penny’s extended injury history. In his five games played before his injury, Penny averaged over six yards per carry. His only game where he failed to surpass 54 yards on the ground was against the eventual number one run defensive unit: the San Francisco 49ers. The on-field production and talent have never been in question with Penny, it’s just been the availability that has been the big issue. There’s no way he will command starter-level money on the open market, but he will surely end up somewhere on a one-year deal as a depth piece. That could make a fantasy value – even if he only plays a handful of games – as the RB57 in early best ball ADP.

Raheem Mostert & Jeff Wilson (RB – MIA)

Raheem Mostert was signed to the Dolphins this past season, reuniting with former 49ers coach Mike McDaniel in South Beach. The soon-to-be 31-year-old is projected to back up big free agent acquisition, Chase Edmonds. However, Edmonds fell out of favor extremely quickly and Mostert took over the starting job in Week 2. From that point until Week 8, Mostert averaged nearly ten half-points (RB21), 13.7 rushing attempts, and 62 rushing yards per game. The team quickly moved on from Edmonds before the trade deadline, replacing his spot on the roster with another ex-49ers running back, Jeff Wilson Jr.

Wilson joined the squad in Week 9 and immediately took on a sizable role. Wilson averaged 10 carries for 49 yards and nearly 0.4 TDs per game from Weeks 9 through 18. Mostert averaged an eerily similar workload with ten carries for 55 yards and 0.25 TDs per game. The two both missed one game entirely over this stretch, but posted an almost identical fantasy point-per-game output at ten points per game (RB32/33) with Wilson getting the slight lean in terms of expected points based on usage. Wilson out-targeted Mostert 23 to 20. However, Mostert was the superior back on a per-touch basis. The journeyman running back was superior in yards after contact per attempt (4.01 versus 2.33) and caught 18 of his 20 targets. Wilson only converted 12 of his 23 targets into receptions. Whichever running back Miami targets/re-signs this offseason will be important to track for fantasy purposes, as their explosive offense lends itself to a friendly fantasy-scoring environment.

Mostert, Wilson, and Myles Gaskin are all unrestricted free agents, while Salvon Ahmed is a restricted free agent. But either way, fantasy managers need to realize that whatever combination forms Miami’s backfield will certainly result in some type of committee approach. They will likely re-sign one of their in-house impending free-agent RBs, and add somebody through the draft. There’s also a chance they splurge on a high-profile free-agent running back, but that doesn’t seem as likely after what happened with Edmonds in 2022. Both running backs are being priced outside the top-45 RBs in early best-ball ADP with Mostert the highest priced at RB48.

D’Onta Foreman (RB – CAR)

Typically the boom-or-bust mantra is designated for WRs only, but D’Onta Foreman fit the mold to a tee after Christian McCaffrey was traded to the 49ers. From Week 7 onward, Foreman sat as the RB21 in total points and RB22 in points per game. He ranked fourth in the NFL in total rushing yards (852). But his path to back-end RB2 status was not consistent whatsoever. Foreman rushed for over 110 yards in half of the last ten games, while finishing with fewer than 40 rushing yards in four of his others. His half-point RB finishes were as follows: RB13, RB5, RB42, RB9, RB48, RB27, RB27, RB70, RB3 and RB53. He was also a total zero in the passing game with just five receptions total as the team’s starter. Even so, Foreman has flashed high-end early-down starting potential for two straight seasons, giving teams a reason to sign him as a free agent. Carolina still has Chuba Hubbard under contract, but it remains to be seen how the new coaching staff under HC Frank Reich will access the current roster at hand. Hubbard didn’t see quite the volume that Foreman saw, but he was the better pass-catcher (12% target share) and was more efficient as a rusher. Hubbard finished the year as PFF’s 7th-highest graded rusher (84.5) averaging 5.1 yards per carry.

Jerick McKinnon (RB – KC)

From Weeks 10-17, both Isiah Pacheco and Jerick McKinnon were top-21 half-point scorers. Jerick McKinnon was the RB7 in points per game, third in RB receptions at 35 with seven receiving TDs. The Chiefs’ scatback made the most of his opportunities as a receiver out of the backfield especially with Mecole Hardman sidelined. Because Hardman’s injury correlated with a massive spike in usage for McKinnon. In eight games with Hardman in the lineup, McKinnon was averaging close to just three targets per game. That number jumped to five in the nine games with Hardman out, as did McKinnon’s receptions totals (2-to-4). His yardage also spiked from just under 20 yards to nearly 40 receiving yards per game.

It’s clear at this point in McKinnon’s career that he cannot be deployed as anything more than a breather/pass-catching back in the rotation with another. He is already 30 years old and probably has the most fantasy value if he remains a Chief. His re-signing with KC would also be ideal for anyone invested in Pacheco, as a McKinnon return would make it less likely that KC invests significantly into another running back option. If ends up signing elsewhere, I’d be extremely bearish on his fantasy outlook as he requires such a specific role for success.

Latavius Murray (RB – DEN)

New head coach Sean Payton has already name-dropped Latavius Murray, a 2023 free agent that the Broncos seem more likely than not to re-sign with Payton operating at the helm. The two have obvious ties back to New Orleans, and Murray performed well when Denver scooped him up during the middle of last season after Javonte Williams went down with a devastating knee injury. In 12 games from Weeks 6-18, Murray was the RB24 in half-point scoring averaging 10.3 points per game (RB30). He was PFF’s 10th-highest graded rusher (82.8) and averaged 15 touches per game. Murray also averaged nearly 70 yards from scrimmage and 3 targets per game. Not too shabby for the 33-year-old running back. With Williams potentially delayed in return from his knee injury, I’d suspect that Murray picks up the slack to open the year if he stays in the Mile High City. He is essentially free in best-ball drafts as the RB72, which seems like massive oversight in the best-ball drafting community.

Alexander Mattison (RB – MIN)

Alexander Mattison smashed in most games that Dalvin Cook missed from 2020-2021. The Vikings RB2 posted five games with at least 23 touches over that stretch, including two games with 32 touches when Cook was sidelined. He averaged 23.7 PPR points and 90 rushing yards per game in those contests. The problem in 2022, was that Mattison never got the opportunity to carve out a bell cow role because Cook stayed healthy for the entire season. Aside from the occasional goal-line touch, Mattison operated strictly as RB2 for Minnesota. And that hurt Mattison’s chances of boosting his stock in free agency.

The 25-year-old running back was at least efficient when he carried the ball, finishing with a career-high 84.2 PFF rushing grade which ranked 15th among 61 running backs with at least 70 carries in 2022. Fantasy managers will have to wait patiently to see where Mattison lands before projecting his 2023 outlook, as he’s never been a featured back for an entire season. How much he is paid on the open market will provide some indication of how he might be used. At least, the glimpses of him in a full-time role as a Viking shed some light on his potential upside should he ascend to RB1 status on another depth chart. Dalvin Cook has also been vocal about not wanting to take a pay cut, suggesting his days at the Vikings RB1 could be numbered. The team can save close to $8 million if they release him.

Kenyan Drake (RB – BAL)

Don’t overly obsess about whichever team signs Kenyan Drake this offseason. He was cut by the Las Vegas Raiders before landing in Baltimore – a team that was decimated by injuries at the RB position. Drake was often a healthy scratch when other running backs like J.K. Dobbins, Gus Edwards, and Justice Hill were healthy enough to play, and he underwhelmed when on the field. His PFF rushing grade ranked third-worst among all RBs with at least 70 carries. His elusive rating ranked dead last. Had it not been for a few breakaway runs (he finished fifth in breakaway run rate) Drake would have finished even worse than his RB52 standing (7.3 points per game).

Honorable Mentions (Age)

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